Clouds over a summer open air party. Nope, that doesn’t feel quite right, specifically for a label like SUOL. The Berlin-based electronic collective is one that prefers sunny days on the beach, over dark and sticky clubs. Why else would they promote their latest compilation SUOL Summer Daze 2013 with a sentence like: “You are sitting on a terrace, looking out over beautiful rolling green hills that run down to white beaches and then on to bright aquamarine seas.” A relaxing atmosphere takes precedence over a mindless rave attitude. This Sunday in early August the label celebrates its annual “Suol Open Air” at an intimate location in Berlin. The relaxed atmosphere can be felt everywhere, not just on this cloudy but actually quite warm summer day. It seems to be the essence of the artist collective from the German capital who lives by the credo: “This is us and we do what we do.”
There is something behind this company that caught the attention of NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION and made us take a closer look on their concept and spirit. With such diversified artist like FRITZ KALKBRENNER, CHASING KURT or TILL VON SEIN the company stretched the concept of electronic house music far beyond it’s usual limitations. It might be house music in it’s core but there’s a component of individuality within each artist, a feature that separates SUOL from a lot of other electronic labels around. You can sense a certain degree of musical foundation within each and every release. They seem to care a bit more about the organic aspects of their sound and way less about how they’ve seen in the scene or industry. With success on their side, it’s easy to stick to your guns. Of course the way up is a hard one although they make it look quite easy.
With the goal of finding out a bit more about SUOL’s specific ethos and how to successfully run a record label in this day and age, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION tried to define the spirit of SUOL. We’ve took the chance to talk with label founders Chi-Thien Nguyen and John Muder aka CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON – as well as with producer TILL VON SEIN – about the way they see themselves, the difficulties of the modern music business and what kept them going in tough times. Oh, and of course we give you the chance to win a few goodies at the end.
“Labelling is some sort of a disease in the music industry.”
So, what’s up with these guys? Are the members of SUOL soul musicians in disguise? Label founders Nguyen and Muder smile when they’re asked this question. “Well, somehow we are, indeed. It’s definitely part of our musical background” explains Muder, “A coherent sound is somehow important. But the interpersonal aspect was more important. We first got to know the artists and then we talked about the whole label thing.”
The ‘whole label thing’ started for CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON after they parted ways with their former partner at label Baalsaal. SUOL was officially founded in 2010 as a follow-up. But it wasn’t an easy decision as Muder points out: “After the whole Baalsaal thing the two of us sat together and had a talk about it. Like ‘Do we really want to do this? Starting another label’? And if we do, how do we going to organize it in a way that both of us are happy?”
And what were these points?
J: Most importantly, we needed a bit of help in the back office. I mean, we might be good with the vision and creativity but we really needed help on the managing level. So, we looked around, found Nicole who we knew before and it worked out quite well. That was the most important part for me… you know, getting the artists paid and everything.
“Besides that, we like to give the people creative freedom” explains Nguyen (who’s the quieter part of the well-functioning duo on that day.) He and Muder might look like the typical tattooed hipsters next door but within a few minutes you can sense that you can’t deal with common stereotypes when talking about SUOL. There is the urge of creating something outside of the ordinary in a free and unforced way.
Did you found the label as some sort of counter-reaction to the scene?
C: Our musical background is quite organic. And so we wanted to include these organic elements within our sound as well.
J: Reaction maybe more against the way the labels worked back then. It was less about the sound more about the spirit. When we grew up labels were more about a community. It was that whole ‘family aspect’ I wanted to re-create that. And when the music industry went down, this all broke apart and everyone was focused on doing their own thing. I always thought this was the wrong reaction. If the surrounding gets worse, the most important thing is to stick together.
And the wisdom of their previous encounters with the music industry might also be a plus as TILL VON SEIN points out: “What also helps is that we are all a bit older and have a certain past in the music industry. And this made us all quite relaxed and a bit more laid back on certain things. Some of us – me included – got regular jobs so there’s no financial pressure on it.”
TILL VON SEIN – who’s about to release the next installment of the label’s SUOL Mates compilation series in September – confirms the chilled atmosphere. He joined after being messaged by Nguyen. He’s not a typical techno guy in terms of his musical background. Later on that day – during his slot at the Open Air – he will mix smooth house beats with FRANK OCEAN as if it is the most natural thing on earth.
Is it even possible to label your music style somehow?
J: Yeah somehow… well, labelling is some sort of a disease in the music industry. There is this urge to name specific things. Especially when you have online shops and want to buy a couple of tracks there. And then there’s all these people talking about if this is really ‘deep house’ or something else. (laughs) So, basically we’re out of that classification. If it’s good, we release it.
SUOL are currently quite keen to transform the label into a brand with shirts and a certain cooperate identity. “We’re growing with the tasks. First we wanted to release good records and sign good artists. We have this now, and you realize that creating a brand might be the next step to push the artists and their music.” It’s that sort of focus that might distinguish these two from other ambitious label founders. “You have to be present on various levels to get the attention.” Muder adds.
Although the artists on the roster of SUOL might be familiar to electronic music nerds around the house music universe, you wouldn’t say they are mainstream or well-known with the exception of (Muder’s and Nguyen’s old friend) FRITZ KALKBRENNER. Ever since his hit collaboration Sky And Sand and the hype around his brother PAUL, the younger brother gets far more attention than every other act on SUOL. KALKBRENNER‘s sophomore album Sick Travellin’ entered the German album top ten and his name appears often on festival posters. He’s mainstream material but CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON found it quite easy to keep him on their label. Chi-Thien Nguyen: “We started making music with him when he was a real nobody. And we produced everything together and exchange a lot. He feels quite comfortable in the aspect of music and friendship which makes it quite easy for us to keep him.” According to Muder he’s a very loyal character. And TILL VON SEIN agrees on this aspect: “This really helps us getting to focus on the whole story. And it really is an absolute exception in Germany. I can’t think of any artist on such a level of popularity who’s on such a small label.”
Both – FRITZ KALKBRENNER and the SUOL crew – might not desperately need each other to succeed. But there is a feeling of loyalty surrounding each and every act. It might not matter if you have an almost sold out European tour like KALKBRENNER or a still quite unknown debut record like From The Inside by CHASING KURT. But what matters is friendship and an honest sense of loyalty – especially in a time that is quite difficult for the music industry. And that’s the one point that sticks out, as Muder insists: “We have to get along. And our only condition to the artists is a certain exclusivity. We give them total creative freedom although we offer help whenever it is requested. But they have to commit to the label.”
That was the first part of NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION’s feature about SUOL. Find out more about the spirit, the musical background of the protagonists and their future plans in the upcoming second part.
In the meantime take your time to discover the music and win an exclusive package from SUOL. In cooperation with the label we’re giving away one goodie bag featuring a shirt, a sweat band and Roots, the latest EP by CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON on vinyl! All you have to do is write us a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Suol”, your post address and clothing size. Good luck!